Smaller, Lighter, Faster? How about bigger and better. What's ahead for the professional photographer.

Steering is almost as important as taking the right road.

I had a plan for the recession and it worked out okay. It was pretty simple. Get rid of anything with a recurring payment (stuff like cable TV, a fax line, subscriptions of any kind, standing lunch appointments, car payments and coffee) and then relentlessly downsize. Minimize. Maintain a low overhead and continue to market as much as possible.

Professional photographers were the first "luxury" item to be cut by our corporate clients and right after us they put all the good graphic designers and traditional ad people on hold. Clients maximized anything they could on the web because of the perception (real or imagined) that they were getting placement for free. Also, web oriented design shops turned out (according to studies done by Ad Age) to charge about half the fee traditional print shops did (and still do) for creative content.  The lunge to the web and the hop out of more traditional media made "good" photography less mission critical than in the days of print and P-O-P and that made it A-okay for everyone to lean heavily on "almost free" stock photography for their websites and e-mail blasts.

Given the Scrooge-ian nature of the last four years in our industry I think my instinct to downsize and hold the line were prescient. It didn't hurt that we produced five books over the course of the recession but that was sheer, dumb luck and not part of any conscious plan for survival.

More to the point I counseled any who asked to do as much as they could with the least they could manage. My first book, Minimalist Lighting was marbled with this convenient belief.  And so, for the last few years, we've excused our assistants from the room, learned how to pack lighter and continued to try and make a living in photography.  And when I say, "We" I mean professional photographers around the world.

Like a sinusoidal waveform on an oscilloscope every trend and cycle has a natural progression. A market hits the apex of its successful curve and then crashes down to the bottom of its trough and then repeats the cycle. The main differences are the length of time over which the cycle plays out and how steeply inclined are the angles of destruction and recovery. Those pesky x/y axes.

Now we're starting to see a healthy revival amongst our diverse client bases. People are coming back to the table. Like all you can eat Sushi that's three days old they've had pretty much all the stock imagery they can take and they're ready for more diverse and substantial fare. But while everyone was hibernating in their bunkers the content providers shifted and changed. Now all the cameras are more or less the same. Everyone seems to be using little battery powered lights that limit the potential to provide a wider palette of lighting design.  At our clients' cues, in the past four years, we all started to gear down for "good enough." And now that they've emerged (the clients) from the economic bomb shelters and the  life support stasis pods they're hungry to go back to a universe they used to know. One in which photographers could trot out the big guns and do marvelous things.

But circumstances flattened the playing field so hard that few are left who even remember how to light well and big.  Or even anything at all beyond one light.

Much of the style that dominated over the last four or five years was generated and mutated by a grim necessity = no budgets. No budgets for models meant more retouching and a lot of compromise on the messaging. No budgets for gear meant lots of available light with fill flash and a rash of itchy, uncomfortable PhotoShop manipulations just to get images up to what would have previously been considered basement level quality.

So here's what I think clients want right now.  (Real clients. Players with checkbooks and P.O.'s.) They're starting to think they want to see how good it can really be again. They want photographers to play big again and break out the atomic arsenal of creative kick-ass and they're almost willing to pay for it again. But they're looking around and not finding many steady hands left. Or new ones to take their places. And no one wants to play "re-invent" the wheel again.

Here's the plan for commercial photographers for the next few years (and hopefully these are years that are on a newly ascendent part of the economic waveform):  Play big. If you still have your big power packs and heads and a case filled with Monolights then get them out and play big. Light shit up old school good. Show potential clients the difference between a skinny, anemic Nikon flash in a cheap umbrella and several thousand watt seconds through a seven foot Octabank and several layers of real silk. Show them with the work. Demand good models (not their office admins and interns) and demand real make up artists, not the Goth chick you met on Model Mayhem.

We need to get back into the mindset of knocking down imaging compromises and re-focus on making images that are as good as we are capable of producing. We need to deliver the highest production values we can imagine.

We ducked and covered when there was no other way. That's over.  If you can handle big lights well and big files even better you're almost there. If you can also direct and produce a shoot and make it sing then you have become re-competitive. As of now it seems like price is no longer the only consideration in the bid process.

The mantra changes as the economy changes. We spent doing the last four years doing whatever it took to stay afloat and profitable.  That meant smaller teams; it meant cutting muscle and it meant a diminished way of working. It's hard to change gears now but it's a new quarter and a new game and it's ramping up quickly. If you play to your strengths and amplify your advantages you have the potential to grab and hold more market share as advertising and commercial markets move from positions of procurement weakness and uncertainty to a new drive with a new goal. Cumulatively the clients know the dreck they've been using for the last four years is now an anchor on profits and forward momentum and they know they need to upgrade their game. They'll do it with much better content and much more differentiated content.  When economies recover it's almost always reflected in the advertising, expressed as much increased production value.  Grander visions and greater emphasis on quality.

For many companies it's time to reposition as "subtle yet elegant" instead of "workmanlike." And the first contact every company has with it's clients and customers are the image presented by their advertising.  Strong, powerful, stable and innovative companies show off best with high production values, beautiful faces, professional styling and appropriate propping and great locations. It's the good, old "put  your best foot forward" theory.

If you can light and shoot well you may win. If you try to sell  only on low prices now you'll only play in the discount sandbox with the other children.  The rest of us are getting back to business.  And it makes sense to go back to playing with the big gear now.

Program note: This advice is relevant only to the north American market. I think we've de-leveraged a lot of debt both on the consumer and corporate sides of the ledgers and we've become more financially efficient. Europe is lagging in the de-leveraging arena and it's retarding their small business and medium business recovery, in some cases severely.

I don't know about the wedding and portrait markets. My statement is only about the commercial, advertising, public relations and corporate markets. That's where the money current sits. That's the segment with both pent up demand and actual need as opposed to "want." 


Dave Jenkins said...

So. You gonna get that D800 or Sony a99?

Kirk Tuck said...

How about an Aptus back for the Hasselblad?

Craig Yuill said...

Does the Aptus back have a 56 mm x 56 mm sensor, or at least something close to that?

Kirk Tuck said...

Naw. It's a crappy little thing. 36mm x 48mm but it's pretty cheap if you get a used Aptus II-5. I saw one listed recently on Luminous Landscapes "for sale" area for $5,000.

David Liang said...

I don't have the history to relate but this post still hit me on an emotional level. I've been second guessing myself recently about investing so much in my business, especially when I'd been successful doing something completely different.
But thank you for posting this I feel like I got a second wind, and a bit of confidence about the market to keep going forward.

Craig Yuill said...

Well, at least it's 200% the area of FF rather than the relatively-small 150% that you've mentioned some digital medium format cameras have. Unfortunately, the sensor in the Aptus back isn't square. It would be sweet if someone would make a back with a 56 mm x 56 mm sensor that didn't cost as much as a house.

Kirk Tuck said...

I wish they would.

Kirk Tuck said...

David, now's the time to hit the market hard. At least here in Austin and some of the other tech cities in which I maintain contacts. Things seem to be heating up...

David Liang said...

I'm in Toronto so I'm hoping the market is comparable. I've been working at Bell's internal creative department, doing corporate photography and using their studio to get a sense of the equipment before I invest. But I'm about ready to head out on my own, got my company incorporated, accounts set up, just slowly accumulating more experience and equipment.

I just want to say I can't even recall how I stumbled upon your site, but it's been a real informative experience reading about your business practices. Been meaning to get around to getting one of your books, but I just know right now it'll sit on my desk. So I really enjoy these types of posts of yours.

Thanks again for posting them.

Paul Glover said...

"Light shit up old school good."

Heh, I sorta needed a laugh today and that line did it for me...thank you!